The Progressive Prophet Without Honor

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Driving Jesus Out of Town

This week’s lectionary reading is a strange little story detailing the auspicious start of Jesus’ ministry. Driven by the spirit, He returns home to Nazareth to preach in the synagogue. His family, childhood friends, and old neighbors anxiously await the return of the native, whose fame was spreading throughout the region. It seems this local boy finally made good on his promise to become a rabbi.

Jesus enters the synagogue, opens the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, finds his place, and begins to read.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

So far, so good. Jesus adopts Isaiah 61 as his mission statement, proclaiming that He, acting as God’s servant, will bring freedom and restoration to the marginalized. Interestingly enough, Jesus omits reading verse two which references “the day of vengeance of our God”, figuratively taking scissors to the Bible, signifying a dramatic distinction between his merciful announcement of the Kingdom and that of his predecessor John the Baptist. No doubt, his listeners would have noticed his refusal to include the verse in his messianic announcement. Finished with the reading, Jesus sits down as “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” Then, He offers this famous, one sentence sermon:

“Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The lectionary does us little favors by dividing this story into two parts, because it’s what Jesus says next that causes everything to go wrong. Jesus tells two stories about two of Israel’s favorite prophets, Elijah and Elisha. The problem is that of all the accounts he could have chosen to tell, Jesus picks two scandalous tales of prophetic ministry done on behalf of and for Gentiles, honoring the dirty, sinful people this hometown crowd despises. Jesus reminds them,

“There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and unto none of them was Elijah sent, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”

Oh snap he didn’t.

To the horror of everyone gathered, Jesus does the unthinkable, he tweaks the message and the meaning of Isaiah’s prophecy by announcing God’s “jubilee of liberation, amnesty, and pardon” to everybody, including Israel’s enemies. Reminding us all in the process that the text is always subordinate to the infallible word made flesh. Filled with self-righteous indignation at his progressive use of Scripture, the crowd turns on Jesus and tries to murder him on the spot! A prophet has no honor with hometown crowds.

And, as much as we’d like to distance ourselves from Jesus’ friends and neighbors, we aren’t so different. Like them, we believe that our righteousness, proper sexual ethic, doctrine, skin color, and privilege constitute our place as God’s chosen people. We believe that Isaiah’s words are our words, written for our deliverance, and our deliverance alone. Israel in fact would have first heard this prophetic song during their Babylonian captivity, and now they hear it afresh as subalterns living under the jack boot of Rome. For centuries, they had waited on the fulfillment of these promises, and today in their very midst Jesus declares that the wait is over, that the Kingdom of God is being fulfilled in their midst. But that kingdom includes the very people that are socially, economically, and politically oppressing them. They were so hell bent on defending God revealed in the text, that they failed to experience the God in flesh standing in their midst. Our modern equivalent would be Jesus preaching at Liberty University, announcing that homosexuals, Muslims, democrats, and communists are entering the kingdom ahead of us. You can understand why they wanted him dead.

Yet, in referencing these stories, Jesus resists the most dangerous idea of all, that God’s love is for some people, and not for all people. Think for a minute about his ministry. He’s always dragging his innocent disciples into regions where the people are spiritually oppressed: he goes to “the other side” to heal Legion, he talks openly with a Samaritan women, he restores the Syrophoenician’s daughter because of her faith, he eats with sinners and tax collectors who have defiled hands, he’s soft on whores, he drinks with drunks, he touches the unclean, and even has the audacity to make women disciples. The entirety of Jesus’ ministry can be read as unadulterated resistance to the conventional religious wisdom that God’s love is only for those who deserve it.

2,000 years later, things aren’t much different. In fact, the church today fears this resistance against rigid orthodoxy almost as much as they are afraid of their own irrelevance.  In every religious community there exists those who believe that their mission statement is to protect God from the very people he came to save. When challenged to consider a wider view of God, their orthodoxy becomes even more uncompromising. This inflexible faith causes them to live in fear of ‘the other’, and they see it as their duty to protect God and doctrine, because it is clear that they are no longer capable of protecting themselves. Such fundamentalism “occurs wherever, in the face of the immorality of the present age, the gospel of creative love for the abandoned is replaced by the law of what is supposed to be Christian morality.” As I write this, Franklin Graham just proclaimed on Christian radio that “We have allowed the Enemy to come into our churches. I was talking to some Christians and they were talking about how they invited these gay children to come into their home and to come into the church…We have to be so careful who we let into the churches.” While Graham consistently makes himself an easy target due to his hate speech toward homosexuals and Muslims, he represents a vast majority of American evangelicals who champion the religion of fear.

So, as the Anglican Communion threatens schism over homosexuality, as Wheaton College browbeats a tenured professor, and as conservative evangelicals continue the culture war against progressive Christians and their ‘liberal, secular agenda’, let us be reminded that Jesus himself was rejected by the religious in-crowd for standing in solidarity with outsiders, because only “someone who finds the courage to be different from others can ultimately exist for ‘others’”.

Authentic Christianity requires our own identification with the crucified Christ, to the extent that we understand that in him “God has identified himself with the godless and those abandoned by God”. The more we identify with Christ, the more we are able to identify with others. “Scripture is filled with one person recognizing, welcoming, embracing, and releasing the strength of unfamiliar other.” Therefore our commitment to be a community of inclusion is not based on cultural capitulation or social pressures, but on the “belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”

It seems God’s people are always learning the hard way that the thrust toward unity must find a way to include the very people we wish to exclude. Much to our discomfort, God really does work on both sides of the street. And as his followers, we can either be a people that stands with clinched fists in open opposition to those we believe are unworthy, or we can join the Jesus movement, a movement bringing good news to the poor, and release for the captives. As Bishop Michael Curry reminds us, “It may be part of our vocation to help many others to grow in a direction where we can realize and live the love that God has for all of us. And we can one day be a church where all of God’s children are fully welcomed…And so we must claim that high calling…We are part of the Jesus movement, and the cause of God’s love in this world will never stop, and will never be defeated.” Amen, and Amen.

 

 

Advent Or Apocalypse

“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory…Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come…Therefore, stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come…lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay Awake!”

At first glance, this lectionary reading seems strange for the first Sunday of Advent.  It sounds like we’re celebrating the first Sunday of Apocalypse. Heavens torn asunder, the sun darkened and stars falling from the sky replace our iconic images of lowing cattle, a dark cave with kneeling shepherds and a star in the East. And yet, these highly charged metaphors of cosmic cataclysm are the perfect starting point for a season of expectation as we not only celebrate Christ’s birth, but we anticipate His second coming and His great day of vindication.

Mark’s audience also awaited something: primarily, messianic deliverance from their Roman overlords. Like them, we too find ourselves in exile, waiting patiently for the ultimate restoration and redemption of this world. In this election year, we’ve grown weary of the rulers, powers and principalities of this world and anticipate the day when Yahweh will make all things new. But we are still waiting, and some of us are even losing hope. Mark’s readers thought the day would come in their lifetime, but now, some 2,000 years after his word’s were pinned, Christ’s Kingdom on earth is still not complete, causing all of creation to groan expectantly as in the pains of childbirth.  We join the first century church yearning for Christ’s arrival as the satisfaction of God’s ancient promise to bring all of creation back under his rightful rule.

But, in the meantime, we turn our full attention to the ambiguous face of human history. Mark’s choice of apocalyptic language has little to do with holding the carrot of eternity before our nose. The precise raison d’etre for apocalyptic language is to deny the imminence of easy kingdom victory, to force us to accept the agony of history. With millennia in the rearview mirror, this kingdom fruition stuff ain’t happening overnight. The total effect of the ever-retreating horizon of kingdom fulfillment is to support an atmosphere of genuine hope amid our current frustration. Mature faith in the cross understands the enduring struggle that historical existence entails.  We want absolution now, but eagerly wait his coming again in glory. It is precisely the conviction that the new order is ‘here but not yet’ that motivates each Christ follower to join in the unfinished, genuine struggle for new creation.  Advent season compels us to enter into our historical moment, to choose between the old order which is passing away, and the new world which is coming through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

And so, we wait and watch for His coming like the disciples in Gethsemane who also heard the command to “watch and pray…” And like them, we now see the entire world and our call within our world through the lens of Gethsemane: to stay awake in the darkness of history, to refuse to compromise the politics of the cross and to follow Christ through the crucible of suffering.  Advent takes us beyond the stable, up Golgotha’s hill and to another cave, but this one is empty, save a young man proclaiming glory to God in the highest. The resurrection of Jesus is the boundary event of our existing paradigm; it is the starting point for this expectant new creation.  It provides a wholly new way of understanding our human experience.  And as we celebrate his birth, we join the litany of disciples awaiting his second coming when God will be all in all as the waters cover the sea…

Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind

In one the hearts of all mankind;

Oh, bid our sad divisions cease,

And be yourself our King of Peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to you, O Israel!

The Return of The Native

A Lectionary Rmark-255x388eflection on Mark 6:1-13

Mark’s Gospel reads like minimalist street-theatre, with abrupt scene changes and plot twists compelling the reader to feel the urgency of the drama. Written primarily to help imperial subjects come to terms with themselves and their colonial world, Mark stands alone in antiquity as a narrative for and about common people. At center stage is Jesus, the itinerant rabbi roaming Galilee healing the sick, raising the dead and feeding the hungry. And, for at least the first five chapters of Mark’s tragedy, he is the popular protagonist known for his revolutionary teaching and civil disobedience.

This week’s lectionary reading finds Jesus returning home, to the people and place of his past. And due to his growing fame throughout the region, the reader expects him to receive a warm reception. But instead, his neighbors and kin meet him with anger, fear, and contempt. “Is not this the Carpenter, the son of Mary?” Which functions not so much as a question as a mocking conclusion about Jesus’ illegitimacy. In his own town, among his own relatives, Jesus is rejected because he exceeds their meager expectations. There is probably nothing more spiritually suppressive than old time religion in a one-horse town that continues to rely on “how things have always been”.

Why is it that a stranger can see from a distance what a neighbor cannot see close? Things can become too familiar, too absolute. His eyes, hands, voice, and clothes are now plain, predictable, and probably a bit tattered. After all, this is just Mary’s boy, everyone is sure of that. But facts alone don’t lead to faith. When belief is reduced to what is known, certainty becomes the purest of spiritual virtues. Therefore you have a Galilean village, and now an entire religious culture striving for intellectual proof to convince themselves that what they believe is actually true, leaving precious room for the beauty of mystery and the stretching nature of doubt.1 Maybe there are times when God is just willfully ambiguous…

Jesus’ return home reminds us just how blind we can be to something we think we know so well. Why was it so hard to see Jesus for who he really is? Why is it so hard to see him now through our best attempts at systematic theology and dogmatic apologetics?

Mark’s drama is the story of the God who is like Jesus. He still confounds, still confuses, and still refuses to fit our preconceived expectations. If anything is certain, it’s that the last two thousand years has proven that those of us who think we know him most may well be the ones who know him least.